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Russia: RFE/RL Reporter Attempts To "Transit" Moscow

Prague, 12 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Traveling to Azerbaijan and Armenia from Prague can be a daunting exercise. Particularly if one travels via Moscow.

The Russian consul in Prague said there was no need to arrange a visa in advance. The Azerbaijani and Armenian visas would suffice for a transit stay in Moscow of up to 24 hours.

After landing at Moscow's Sheremetyevo-2 airport and getting to the front of the passport line, the following conversation took place between the American reporter and a uniformed border guard (female). US: Hello! RUS: Where is your visa? US: I'm on my way to Baku. Here is my Azerbaijani visa and my ticket. RUS: This is Russia! US: Yes, I know that, but as you know, Russia and Azerbaijan are in the CIS. And the Russian consul in Prague told me I could stay in Moscow for up to 24 hours.

The guard called over a supervisor. But she was equally non-plussed. RUS: Your flight isn't until tomorrow morning. Go to the transit area upstairs! US: But I want to go into Moscow. RUS: You can't! US: What about my suitcase over there on the carousel? RUS: Don't worry about it.

The border guard switched off the light in her booth and left.

The reporter went upstairs to the deserted transit area. Here, an older border guard (male) came over. He asked where the reporter was going, looked at his passport and visas and said: "Downstairs!" US: But I've already been over there and they sent me up here. RUS: Let's go.

The two went downstairs to see the supervisor. The older guard told the supervisor to admit the American into Russia. He said that the Armenian visa was good enough for a transit stay in Moscow. The supervisor complied. Apparently, the Armenian visa was regarded by the guards as more legitimate than the Azerbaijani one.

Sometime later the American checked into a hotel in the center of Moscow. And the visa problems continued. Clerk: Where's your visa? US: I don't have one, I'm in transit.

The clerk had apparently never seen an American without a visa and did not know how to register him. Urgent consultations with colleagues and by phone followed. Finally, the American reporter was given a scrap of paper marked with rubber stamp and a registration number. Clerk: Show this to the guards tomorrow or they might not let you out!

A few minutes later, the American reporter left his hotel in the center of Moscow for a stroll. He quickly realized that he was under surveillance.

Some things never change here, he thought to himself.

Walking down Tverskaya, the former Gorky street, he was surprised by the plethora of currency exchange booths and the splendor of a huge mall submerged under Manezh square. It featured over 100 luxury shops and eateries and was packed with shoppers and gawkers. Moscow clearly has become a very different city from the one he remembered.

But the surveillance continued. On the streets, in the mall, and then in the metro. The way it used to be in the years past.

It happened in February 1998.